Away from the lights and the noise of the city, dusk gives way to dark skies dotted with starlight. Across the Midwest, many places take pride in the simple beauty of dark skies and invite groups to experience a range of tranquil evening activities that showcase the splendor of the cosmos.
The International Dark-Sky Association is committed to recognizing locations with exceptionally dark skies. There are over 60 such locales in the United States, and many of these places are state or national parks with plenty of daytime recreational offerings. But, groups need not abandon all the creature comforts that come with staying in a larger city. They can experience the still quiet of a town that embraces the beauty of the night as much as the day, with charming boutiques, local eateries, and enchanting inns. In fact, groups can take advantage of a range of amenities and programs after dark.
In 2011, Headlands International Dark Sky Park in northern Michigan became one of the first certified dark sky parks. During the day, visitors can wander the paved Dark Sky Discovery Walk, which features cultural docents, artwork, and photography that interpret humanity’s relationship to the night sky over the centuries and across cultures. On clear summer nights, staff set up telescopes on the viewing platform so visitors can see the sky up close. Group leaders can take advantage of this resource and pair it with a twilight talk on topics like comets or the dark skies movement.
Across Lake Michigan, Newport State Park in Wisconsin is one of the darkest places in the state. Surrounded by water, the state’s only wilderness park is free from light sources that interfere with stargazing. Middle Fork River Forest Preserve in Illinois offers serene views of the constellations, and in northern Minnesota, you might even catch a glimpse of the mesmerizing Aurora Borealis (the northern lights) at Voyageurs National Park.
A visit to one of northern Ontario’s dark sky preserves gives visitors a unique opportunity to witness breathtaking celestial scenery. In 2018, Killarney became the first Ontario provincial park to be designated a dark sky preserve, and its research observatory brings astronomical activity into focus for scientists and visitors alike. Also in Ontario, Manitoulin Eco Park immerses visitors in stories about Manitoulin Island and its people, and guides offer insights and facilitate viewings of the radiant stars.
PARTY UNDER THE STARS
Group leaders can elevate evening excursions with informative and fun programming. Whether accessing site-sponsored workshops and viewings or developing one’s own activity, the sky’s the limit for group activities. At dark sky preserves, park rangers host events throughout the year, and professional stargazers and astronomy aficionados are eager to share their knowledge and enhance others’ viewings. Indiana Dunes National Park in northwest Indiana regularly partners with astronomical societies to help visitors marvel at stellar solar sites through shared telescopes.
Constellations have inspired myths throughout history, and group leaders can point out these shapes and entertain travelers with stories. While guests may be most familiar with Greek constellations like Orion and Gemini, other cultures have connected the stars in different ways and developed their own legends. By using several star charts, you invite a fresh perspective on the sky and insights from multiple cultures.
A sky scavenger hunt is another way to engage the novice astronomer and seasoned stargazer in your group. Moonless nights are optimal for stargazing, making it easy for travelers to spot cosmic wonders like nebulas, planets, and the tapestry of stars above. The summer months present the best opportunities to see the spirals and splendor of the Milky Way.
Meteor showers—named for the constellations closest to them and which occur throughout the year—are just one of the many phenomena that groups can see even without a telescope. At Voyageurs National Park, 50 to 75 meteors per hour rain across the sky during the Perseids shower in August. Challenge travelers to keep count of these shooting stars and make a wish!
Star parties are another fun experience for groups. The annual Iowa Star Party at Whiterock Conservancy in Coon Rapids includes astronomy talks and telescopes to spy different galaxies, nebulas, and stars millions of light-years away. Groups can also create their own star party with samplings of local sips and snacks, and by making use of smartphone apps to look and learn as they gaze at the galaxy.
COMPREHENDING THE COSMOS
Stargazers can deepen their appreciation of the night sky through educational programs, and planetariums and observatories are a great resource to help groups learn about starry spectacles after dark.
Chicago’s Adler Planetarium ranks as the first modern planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. For over a century, the Adler has been welcoming visitors for out-of-this- world adventures to explore the vastness of the universe. With two domed theaters, the Adler boasts a constant rotation of exciting programming for groups. Skywatch Live! turns down the lights of Chicago and cranks up the brilliance of the stars to showcase a simulated view of the starry sky directly overhead. The Adler’s newest sky show, “Imagine the Moon,” examines how the moon has inspired human creativity and the ambition to explore the expanse beyond Earth. As part of the Adler campus, the Doane Observatory is home to the largest aperture telescope available to the public in the Chicago area. The observatory allows guests to view heavenly objects like the moon, planets, stars, and distant galaxies.
PACKING LIST FOR COSMIC VIEWING
- Remind travelers to pack these items to maximize their experience
- Extra layers—even in summer, nights can be cool!
- A star chart or mobile app to guide your navigation
- Binoculars or a telescope to maximize the marvels
- Red filters for your flashlight and smartphone
- A blanket with waterproof backing or camper chair
- Water and a snack to fuel your observations
- Repellant to keep the bugs at bay
Written by Michael McLaughlin
Featured Image: Voyageurs National Park; Credit: National Park Service